Renato! (McPherson & Co, 577 pages) is a vast, rambling, delightful tale about the life and loves of Renato Stillamare, a once noted painter who mourns the decades-long dwindling of his reputation. He is also struck to the core by the loss of his wife, his near life-long love, and his complicated muse. The story is three previous novels merged through adroit craft into one. The first section offers the fantastic family origins in Renato’s mythic grandfather, a man half human and half horse. The second section is set a century later, covering the life of Renato, an aging painter wishing to reclaim his prominence in the art world. The third section follows Renato as he tries to revive his reputation and endure the scorching misery of widowerhood.
When I say rambling, I don’t mean the description negatively. The three sections move from fantastic to a progressively more realistic tenor, gaining in wisdom what they shed in pyrotechnics. The novel toys with pat expectations. And if conventionality is the foil of Mirabelli’s worldview, why not an implausible story about a centaur-like man? Or his grandson making love with a woman who falls through a ceiling skylight, a woman who possesses angel-like wings sprouting from her back? Shades of Angela Carter!
Modern Italian fabulists will instantly come to mind, such as Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, and Dino Buzzatti. But, as Mirabelli seems acutely aware, the Italian tradition harkens back to classical writers who in their day were convention-busters. One can hardly conceive of the Latin sensibility without a splash of the marvelous. Renato! feels both classical and wild at once.
If there is a drawback to Mirabelli’s accomplishment, it is a lingering shadow of what used to be known as male chauvinism. There is certainly no hostility or misogyny at work, and the book’s spirit is of exuberant self-awareness. However, a sort of unreconstructed paternalism informs the hero’s personality. Renato blithely disregards the consequences of his infidelities against his wife, Alba, chalking them up to the prerogative of the artist and the Italian libido. The sleight of hand is worrisome. The female characters lack, for the most part, the exuberant portraiture of the males, particularly the protagonist, Renato. At the same time, Alba comes off as more stubborn and durable than possessing some transcendent insight into Renato’s creativity or, more generally, an artistic sensibility. Has she been fleeced?
By contrast, the pierced and tattooed Avalon, a single mother with a child in tow who comes to live more or less platonically in Renato’s home, is a richer character, more sympathetically drawn. The concern for her plight permeates her section of the story. When she exits the story, the emotional gap is palpable.
Perhaps I am a closet moralist foisting the wrong measure on the book. Renato’s life-long attachment to Abla is poignant, too, and when he is widowed, he aches to die to end his lonely separation from her. The chauvinist shadow (if it is, in fact, present) does not ultimately spoil the energy of the work. The writing is expansive, welcoming, and vigorous. The author commands style and the practiced hand proves the most astonishing.
A deep sense of humanity inhabits the novel. Amid the ruminations on painting and snarky gossip about famous artists, the hero writes practical notes to himself, including, “Get us a new toaster that doesn’t burn my fingers every morning.” Linked to this homeliness are declarations such as, “God made us mortal, and all we have to assuage us is this perishable art and human love.” Renato’s end-of-life regrets are myriad, including, “Looking back, I’m baffled I hadn’t done better. I don’t mean painting; I’ve done all right painting even if nobody knows it. But I could have given more time to my friends, could have listened more and complained less, could have been more generous to everyone.”
The once-essential selfishness used to build and guard creative expression, in the long view, looks stupid.
The novel is a long ride but exceedingly charming and worthy, meandering plot and all. The numerous otherworldly characters are strangely compelling. If Aristotle argued for an efficient plot to deliver a cathartic payoff, Mirabelli throws prudence to the wind. Catharsis arrives not in harrowing but through reflection and, often, laughter.
Highly imaginative works take an effort on the reader’s part, and the author’s unconventional choices about narrative will likely limit an audience. (Not unlike the hero’s paintings.) There is a curious aura of recklessness about the story that will disquiet some. Others, for the same reason, will be enchanted. I count myself among the latter. Renato! is an intrepid foray into magical realism with decidedly Italian-American pluck.
– Vic Peterson, author of The Berserkers, 2022